Many people wonder at the difference in price between wines, even from the same varietal, region and vintage. There is often equal disparity in the flavors of these wines, but sometimes surprisingly not.
Terrior, The Place of Wine
Let’s start at the top: place. Terrior is a French word that is bandied around a great deal in the wine world and for good reason. Literally, terrior means earth, suggesting that the ground on which the grapes are grown contributes significantly to the experience of drinking it. But the term terrior has many more far reaching implications than just the plot of earth from which it comes. Earth, in this context, suggests the broader aspects of our planet, rather than simply dirt. Terrior references overall climate, soil, variations in weather, the mezzo and micro climates of each vineyard and each vine, and, more significantly, the je ne sais quoi of the place.
I translate this into the even more esoteric mystical aspects of nature that we can never understand, but are a part of by being alive. Residing on one, I can testify that a vineyard is a mystical place. Sometimes shoots will grow as much as 3 inches in one day, while at other times their growth is indiscernible for weeks. Science can attempt to describe this, but will never fully embrace its essence. It is the essence that contributes to terrior.
Terrior provides distinctive differences in all aspects of wine: color, aroma, flavors and texture. And specific expressions of each of these are lauded, while others dissed. Even vineyards that are contiguous can express themselves quite differently. The secret-sauce is getting all of the most highly regarded elements to work together. They can certainly elevate and enhance each other.
Consequently, one contributing factor to a great wine is place, however vague and broad that may be.
Another set of factors to consider includes viticultural practices, winemaking techniques, and reputation of the winery. These can be somewhat wrapped up in brand. These are often tough to discern by the average consumer in a wine shop or restaurant given the plethora of wines in the market. But each aspect of brand contributes to price. So price is a somewhat unreliable guide to quality. We can all be fooled, truth be told. It is not uncommon for people to wax rhapsodic about an average wine when presented in an elegant package and sold for a high price. This is where the assistance of a knowledgeable wine steward or attendant in a wine shop can be helpful. While very expensive “trophy wines” may be good, their reputation often exceeds their performance.
Great wines are generally made in small quantities, regardless of brand. In fact, the more popular brands have a hard time competing on quality against the boutique producers with much less “brand strength” or recognition. This means that there is often reward in ferreting out hard to find or little known wines. It also means that many people chasing too few resources contribute to higher prices. The best generally costs more.
But at the end of the day, how a wine tastes to YOU is the gold-standard in determining whether a wine is poor, mediocre, good or great.
So once you have selected a wine using varietal, place, brand, and price as a guide, it is time to start tasting wine to see what is great to you.